Were those readers in for a surprise!

Timbuktu by Paul Auster Faber pounds 12.99

Paul Auster is one of a handful of true literary giants at work today. The New York Trilogy, The Music of Chance and Moon Palace are without doubt three of the great novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now, with his last publication of the century, Timbuktu, Auster has broken new ground again. Never before in the history of literature can a celebrated novelist have published a book so closely resembling a high school English assignment. For the sheer giddying plummet in quality represented by Timbuktu, Auster acquires the mystique of a Francis Ford Coppola or an Orson Welles as one of the few people who has scaled the heights and also drunk from the depths of artistic achievement.

A recurrent theme in Auster's work is the frittering away of wealth, and one almost feels that the author is now playing out this theme on his own talent. Just as many of the down-and-outs who appear throughout his novels differ from their peers in that they once had large sums of money, so Timbuktu reads like any number of pet books, standing apart only for the wealth of talent that has been squandered on such puerile subject matter.

The novel's protagonist is Mr Bones, the dog owned by Willy G Christmas, a mentally ill down-and-out who dies approximately a third of the way through the book. For the rest of the novel, Mr Bones wanders around looking for someone to look after him, eventually finding a suburban family who take him in, though at considerable cost to his freedom.

If the book didn't bill itself as "one of the richest, most compelling tales in recent American fiction", complete with a comparison to Don Quixote in the blurb and a Goya painting on the cover, one could simply accept it as a passable attempt at a kids' book. However, read as serious literature, Timbuktu falls embarrassingly short.

The prose style matches the naivety of the subject matter, with phrases like "Was that little mutt in for a surprise!" peppering the narrative. At it's worst, Auster's style descends to truly nauseating kitsch. How one of the major figures in 20th- century literature could come to write the sentence, "This kid meant him no harm, and if Mr Bones was wrong about that, then he would turn in his dog badge and spend the rest of his life as a porcupine" is one of the mysteries of our time.

Worse still, Auster now seems to have decided that puns are funny, and makes connections between dog and God, and Santa and Satan which would be uninteresting even if they were original. The whole book, in fact, reads like a pun on the shaggy dog story - being a story about a shaggy dog in which nothing much happens.

Auster seems to have set out to try to make Lassie look like anthropomorphism-lite. In swallowing the conventions of anthropomorphic writing, Auster hasn't just taken on the sickly cuteness, but has also adopted the obligatory inconsistencies of the genre. Having heard the dog's critical opinions on his owner's poetry, along with his thoughts on love, friendship and the passage of time, we are later told that "he was only a dog, and he wasn't capable of thinking ... ahead".

Thus we get the cuteness of dogs as "more intelligent than people" (yes - this really is suggested) without forgoing the cuteness of dogs as baby substitutes who don't know what they're doing.

Presumably, Auster's intention in this novel is to continue the debate on wealth and poverty that has threaded through his entire oeuvre - the comforts of the former versus the freedoms of the latter. To be fair to him, the final chapter of the book, with Mr Bones installed in a suburban garden, does present an interesting comparison to the first chapter, where he is on the road with his mentally ill former owner. If, by this stage, you have got used to reading with a sickbag on your lap and have persisted with the book, in its closing stages Timbuktu will at last reward your persistence. The dog's perceptions of suburban family life are amusing and reasonably insightful. But by this stage it is far too late.

The kind of people who send each other soft focus birthday cards of puppies sitting on pink satin sheets might enjoy this book, but for the rest of us Timbuktu will only serve as an emetic.

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